It feels like every few years another movie comes out attempting to expose the root cause of the “obesity epidemic” making my life as an activist and a fat person even harder. Last night on twitter I was asked if I had heard about the documentary Fed Up that’s coming out next month by someone who saw it at Sundance in January. You can read their review here but after watching the theatrical trailer that was released this week, it only confirmed what my initial fears would be about the film.
(Photo from the Fed Up press kit)
At the 45 second mark commentary on the trailer states “this is the first generation that is expected to live shorter lives than their parents,” which first started circulating in 2002 and was again reinforced in 2005 by a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine. The lead researcher later backed off his assertion (downloads pdf), as did the first author in 2002, after he admitted that this statement was a prediction and not based on empirical evidence. Since then, especially after the study F as in Fat: How Obesity Threatens America’s Future was published in 2011, the idea that children today will live shorter lives than their parents is continually presented as fact when that simply isn’t true.
While the movie is focused on how policy changes have allowed for the food industry to create products that make it all but impossible for people to eat well, the way they frame it as fat being inherently unhealthy is harmful and doesn’t actually help fat people. By them following around fat teenagers to find out more about how they live, they have participated in the exploitation of the fat shaming they experience and reinforce the dehumanization fat people deal with from a very early age. The girl featured in the trailer talks about how her doctor has told her she could become a statistic, a grim outlook on her life, but frames the problem as being based on her body and not the society we live in. This has been a main tactic of the diet industry in general, where they have continued to imply the experiences fat people have due to fat stigma is not based at an institutional or structural level but instead on individuals for having the audacity to exist.
Furthermore, the fat children and the shots of headless fatties that are flashed throughout the trailer, in-between shots of grocery store isles and spoons in sugar, are not a true representation of what this “epidemic” looks like. All of the images show bodies that most people would visually identify as fat or “obese” yet people of that size take up 6.3% of the US population. This kind of imagery creates a false idea of what this “epidemic” looks like and creates an even less safe society for fat people to live in by removing them from what this reality looks like. This in turn creates a heightened focus on people who are visually labeled fat.
One positive from the film appears to be them trying to combat the idea that willpower has anything to do with body size, but even then by blaming sugar and Michael Pollen talking about how sugar is a drug they are counterproductive in their attempt to challenge this misunderstanding. Most fat activists are well aware of the argument that too much sugar causes fatness and diseases like diabetes. By comparing sugar or food to a drug like heroine, I already know that people will continue to push the need for fat people to have the willpower to fight their sugar addiction and only eat foods who don’t have added sugar.
While the film apparently talks about the structural and class issues related to food access I am unaware of is how they talk about those issues. The inclusion of Bill Clinton in the film seems counterproductive within itself when his presidency gutted welfare and made access to health behaviors in general even harder for people living in poverty. When the Clinton Initiative and their Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s main goal is to end “childhood obesity” by only focusing on the food children have in schools, free time out of school and healthcare, but doesn’t try to build a social safety net for their families or communities they are setting themselves up for failure. This is even truer when we simply don’t know how to make fat people thin people long term and again focusing on people’s bodies not structure doesn’t help much.
The food industry does need to be reformed but focusing on one industry as the root cause for an “epidemic” that many people don’t believe exists is harmful. The health of our society is not purely caused by the food industry but overwhelmingly is related to social conditions created by poverty and inequality. It harms people regardless of body size who desperately need structural changes in our society to create more access to health behaviors and for people to find real solutions other than focusing on individuals to overcome the constraints of their lives.
It’s harmful to the incredibly small segment of fat people with a BMI over 40 who are continually shamed for their bodies and face a higher risk to their health due to weight based stigma. That higher risk is more directly correlated to social conditions like inequality and poverty than biology, as no research has found a causal link between fatness and disease. While fat people are more likely to live in poverty they are also more likely to be a Person of Color and female forcing them to navigate the constraints of fat stigma, racism, classism and sexism while attempting to access health in whatever way they can.
All of this is why I won’t be giving my money to a film that attacks an industry in the name of fat people existing. The experiences fat people are not pawns for filmmakers to use and exploit anymore. If people were seriously invested in creating a healthier society, they would be fighting to end stigma and inequality, not using fat people to point fingers at one industry when there are many other people / industries who need to be pointed at as well.